Uplifting Piano Chord Progression: Music Theory from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (Mid90s Soundtrack)



When you try to write a "happy" chord progression, does it end up sounding cheesy, like the theme song for a kid’s TV show? Then we’ve got a hack for you that’ll turn your kid’s chords into mature and sincere progressions. But first… tea!

Hello revolutionaries, I’m Kate Harmony, this is Ray Harmony, and welcome to Hack Music Theory. This channel helps you make great music that stands out, so you can get discovered! Alright, it’s time to open your DAW to hack music theory.

In their new song “The Start of Things” (from the “mid90s” soundtrack, which just dropped this weekend), Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross lift you up into the clouds with their ethereal piano part. How do they make their chord progression sound so uplifting, yet so sincere? Well, they play back and forth between the root chords of the two most uplifting major modes: Lydian and Ionian. They use D Lydian and A Ionian (which are relatives), and that creates the illusion of their progression being in both modes (which is double happy!). However, Lydian’s dissonant ♯4 counters that with its incredible tension, adding maturity and sincerity.

And by the way, if you need help understanding the modes, then check out the modes hack in our Songwriting & Producing PDF (click and then scroll down), which also contains all our top music making hacks! And if you need help with the basics first, then read our free book on scales and chords, which you can download below.

Set up eight bars of 4/4, with your grid set to 1/8 notes, and your tempo set to 87 BPM. “The Start of Things” only uses two chords, Dmaj and Amaj, so we’ll use them as the basis for our version as well. Start by ping-ponging between a low D and the D an octave higher. Do this for two bars, and then do the same on A for two bars. Next, copy and paste those four bars into the second half. You’ll notice at the end of every second bar, we’ve moved a few notes. This is just to make the chord changes a little more interesting, so feel free to do that too. Now, Trent Reznor has a favourite technique (which we like to call “four-on-the-chords”), where he plays the 1/4 note pulse on the chords. This creates a pumping momentum over which he then plays (or sings) a beautiful melody. Trent’s four-on-the-chords technique aptly stretches back to his mid-90’s masterpiece “Hurt”. And you can definitely see that technique in action here, with those low 1/4 notes in the left hand.

First things first, it is absolutely essential that over the Dmaj chord you play the ♯4 (which is G♯), as this is the magical Lydian note, and it’s super dissonant, so it will single-handedly prevent your melody from sounding like the theme tune for a kid’s TV show*. Other than that, be sure to play the 3 (which is F♯) for that happy vibe, and the 2 (which is E) for that dreamy vibe, then the rest is up to you. Next, over the Amaj chord, keep it simple and just play a couple notes, like we did with the 3 (which is C♯), and the 2 (which is B). Then finally, in the second half, build up your melody to a climax, perhaps a high 3 (which is C♯) over that last Amaj chord. And if you wanna kick up your build even more, throw in a few 1/16 notes, and maybe even some 1/32 notes (but don’t tell Trent about the 1/32 notes, that’ll be our little secret haha!).

*Yes kids, it’s true... The Simpsons theme tune uses the ♯4, but that’s a show for mummy and daddy!

Right, now that you’ve got one section down, how do you write a new section for it, and then, how do you transition between those two sections? Great questions, and if this is something you need help with, then check out our cutting-edge online apprenticeship course, where you’ll literally learn every step of the music making process, and most importantly, you’ll learn how to finish your songs! You’ll also gain access to our Private Network, which is a safe social media platform exclusively for our apprentices (and we already have over 400 apprentices, from over 40 countries). Our Network is a super supportive place for you to ask theory questions, share your music, get feedback, meet like-minded music makers, and more! So if all that sounds useful to you, then head on over to our Online Apprenticeship page now.

Kate & Ray Harmony (AKA Revolution Harmony)
Music Teachers & Producers in Vancouver BC, Canada


Level 1: Read our free book (below) & watch our YouTube videos
Level 2: Read our "Part 1" book & "Songwriting & Producing" PDF
Level 3: Learn our secret art of songwhispering & finish your music!

Learn how to make great music that stands out, so you can get discovered! Taught by award-winning music lecturer Ray Harmony, and his protégé (and wife) Kate Harmony. Ray is the author of critically-acclaimed book series "Hack Music Theory" and has been teaching music theory for 24 years, and along the way he's made music with Serj Tankian (System Of A Down), Tom Morello (Rage Against The Machine), Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree), Devin Townsend (Strapping Young Lad), Ihsahn (Emperor), Kool Keith (Ultramagnetic MCs), Madchild (Swollen Members) and many more! Kate has the highest grade distinction in Popular Music Theory from the London College of Music, and is the only person on the planet who's been trained by Ray to teach his Hack Music Theory method! While our YouTube lessons teach music theory for producers and DAW users, they are designed to accommodate all music makers (songwriters, guitarists, etc.) and all genres, from Electronic Music to R&B, Pop to Hip-Hop, Reggae to Rock, EDM/Dance to Metal (and yes, we djefinitely Djent!).

Photo of Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross by Michael Buckner/Deadline/REX/Shutterstock